In my eyes, last night's match against the Boston Celtics was a major signpost for the Toronto Raptors' 2012-13 season.
The club had recently traded for Rudy Gay, was getting Andrea Bargnani back in the line-up, and seemed eager and willing to make a push for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff spot. A win over the Celtics, the team they were chasing for said playoff entry, would pull Toronto to within six and a half games of the C's in the race for 8.
Now six and a half games is not exactly a close race.
But with 34 games left on the schedule, the door was still open so to speak.
A 20 and 14 finish, not absurd considering the club up until last night, had been a game over .500 over its last 25 matches, would have given the club 37 wins on the season, a mark that would at least put them in discussion for eight. (Last year Orlando, New York and Philadelphia all made the dance with 35 to 37 win totals in a shortened season, so the guess would be that the Raps would need to get a few more wins than that this season.)
Boston will be without Rajon Rondo for the rest of the season and Philly, another team ahead of Toronto in the standings, is floundering and has now lost Thad Young for a few weeks, someone Sixers' coach Doug Collins recently called his most important player.
The thought was that therefore Toronto and Detroit, both had legitimate shots at that final seat on the playoff bus.
And while Toronto's next opponents are no walk in the park, if the club could hang around until March, the hope would be that this group would gel and take advantage of schedule full of clubs like the Bobcats and Wizards, and leap-frog into eighth.
The ocho!! The placeholder for an eventual Miami Heat drubbing!
However as we know, last night's game did not result in a Raptors' win, and now the club sits at 17 and 32, eight and a half games back of Boston, with the playoff door perhaps a game or two away from being slammed shut completely.
Again, it's not impossible that Toronto gets in, but it's hard to envision a team with a .346 winning percentage making the leap.
More importantly, as one reader noted last night, the "Post-Rudy Gay version of the Raptors looks an awful lot like the pre-Rudy Gay version."
There are certainly notable differences now with Gay in tow, but the end result the past two games has been the same; hard-fought matches that Toronto may even be leading late, but that they can not close out. If the prior version of the team couldn't make enough of a push to get to the dance, how can this one, still trying to integrate new and returning players?
Different players, same results.
Normally I'd tell myself to simmer down at this point as yes, Rudy's been with the club for only three games, and last night marked the first that Toronto had pretty much all of its key players ready for battle. (Landry Fields being the exception.)
And obviously it's going to take some time for Dwane Casey to figure things out in terms of rotations, who's best used in what situation and in combination with what other players, etc, etc.
But unfortunately the Raps don't have the luxury of time here.
The trade deadline is exactly two weeks away and this team needs to decide which direction it's going. Is it trying to win now? Collecting assets in preparation for next season?
Right now, I have no idea what to make of things.
Generally when you trade for a player like Rudy Gay, you're saying "we're all in" in terms of winning now. But I'm not convinced the end result of the trade has made them any better than they were with Ed Davis and Jose Calderon, so I'd guess the team continues to play at about a .500 pace.
.500 ball isn't exactly what most people would call "winning now," and as noted above, that's not getting Toronto to a playoff spot barring a collapse of epic proportions by all three teams ahead of them. (Not to mention the Cavs, who are only two games back of the Raps now.) To make a true push, this club needs to plug some holes including grabbing another big man and a legit back-up PG, and it's hard to see how either will be obtained without giving up some of the Raps promising youth.
Aaah yes, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. (And Quincy Acy, to a lesser extent.)
The trio who played a total of seven minutes last night in the loss.
Anyone else think that box scores like last night's will be the norm for these three going forward?
While I could see Ross getting more playing time with Alan Anderson playing his way back into D-League form, it's hard to envision Jonas, and especially Quincy, getting much burn now that Andrea is back. Again, when you trade for Rudy Gay, the emphasis is likely on winning now, not developing the newcomers, so what does management and the coaching staff do with these two? It would one thing to give them spot minutes if the upside wasn't there, or the players in front of them were consistently winning games. Promising rookies often have to wait their turn on teams that are regular playoff contenders.
But again, it's a pretty big stretch to say that at this point regarding the Dinos.
And yet developing Ross and Valanciunas may come at the expense of winning games, and Bryan Colangelo needs wins on his resume to try and keep some of his acquisitions around long-term (not to mention help himself out contractually.)
Further, that "bright side" of losing games, acquiring a blue chip prospect via the NBA Draft Lottery as a reward for your team's malaise, isn't likely to be present this year either. Whoever may be slated to be chosen by the Raptors is almost certainly headed to Oklahoma City thanks to the Kyle Lowry trade last off-season.
A tough situation indeed.
It's also one of the reasons I wasn't a fan of the Rudy Gay trade. To me, if you're going to make such a move, you need to be certain it truly puts your team on another level. Again, adding Gay while subtracting Ed and Jose (although there's no question BC had to try and move Calderon for something significant) doesn't qualify as that "next level" move in my books, especially when combined with the team's present financial obligations.
It's one thing to acquire Rudy Gay, knowing that you can then move some other pieces around to further increase the trade's impact.
It's another when you then need to figure out how to unload another $41.5M or so in the salaries of Andrea Bargnani, Linas Kleiza and Landry Fields.
The situation in fact feels a lot to me like the end of the 2009-10 season. The team needed to give minutes to youngsters like DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems, but continued to roll out Hedo Turkoglu, their big off-season prize, and others like Antoine Wright and Rasho Nesterovic to try and scratch together enough wins to make the playoffs.
We know how the story ended.
The team won 40 games, but failed to make the playoffs and the rebuild project was soon in full swing.
Bryan Colangelo certainly doesn't want to go through another rebuilding exercise so it's going to be very interesting to see what moves he makes over the next couple weeks, if any.
Can he move a bench wing to address the back-up point guard spot? Does he look for another big man to make-up for the loss of Ed Davis? Does he sit tight and hope the current roster is enough to still make a run?
Of course it's important to note though that "sitting tight" wouldn't necessarily mean he's happy with his current roster.
A lack of transactions come trade deadline day could simply mean that once again, Colangelo has boxed himself in, unable to move forward or back, left to sit and watch, hoping his succession of reactive moves finally gets this moribund franchise going in the right direction, something that hasn't happened since his first year in Toronto.